Archive for the ‘Stagflation’ Category

The Fed Tapers as Yellen Prepares to Take Over, and the Unemployed Get Screwed Over

January 19, 2014

In what may be its last official action under Ben Bernanke’s leadership, the Federal Reserve announced in December that it would reduce its purchases of U.S. government bonds and mortgage-backed securities from $85 billion to $75 billion a month as of January 2014. This indicates that the Fed hopes to slow down the growth of the dollar monetary base during 2014 from the 39 percent that it grew in 2013.

Considering that before the 1970s the historical growth rates in the monetary base were 2 to 3 percent, and from the 1970s until the mid-2000s they were around 7 percent, a 39 percent rate of growth in the dollar monetary base is viewed by the Fed as unsustainable in the long run.

The bond market reacted to the announcement in the textbook way, with interest rates on the U.S. 10-year government bonds rising to around 3 percent. The last time interest rates on 10-year bonds were this high was just before the Fed put the U.S. housing market on “life support” in 2011.

It seems likely that the latest move was made to smooth the transition from the Bernanke Fed to the Yellen Fed. Janet Yellen, the newly appointed, and confirmed, chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, is considered a “dove.” That is, she is inclined to follow more expansionary monetary policies than Bernanke in order to push the economy in the direction of “full employment.” As defined by bourgeois economists, this is the optimal level of unemployment from the viewpoint of the capitalists – not unemployed workers. With this move, the money capitalists are “assured” that the Fed will be slowing the rate of growth of the U.S. monetary base despite the new Fed chief’s “dovish” views, while relieving Yellen of having to make a “tightening move” as soon as she takes office.

The gold market, as would be expected, dropped back towards the lows of June 2013, falling below $1,200 an ounce at times, while the yield on the 10-year bond rose to cross the 3 percent level on some days. This reflects increased expectations on the part of money capitalists that the rate of growth in the U.S. dollar monetary base will be slowing from now until the end of the current industrial cycle.

Though the prospect of a slowing growth rate in the monetary base and rising long-term interest rates is bearish for the stock market, all things remaining equal, stocks reacted bullishly to the Fed announcement. The stock market was relieved that a stronger tightening move was not announced. The Fed combined its announcement of a reduction in its purchasing of bond and mortgage-backed securities with assurances that it would keep short-term interest rates near zero for several more years, raising hopes on Wall Street that the current extremely weak recovery will finally be able to gain momentum. As a result, the stock market is still looking forward to the expected cyclical boom.

Long-term unemployed get screwed over

On December 26, Congress approved a measure, incorporated into the U.S. budget, that ended unemployment extensions beyond the six months that unemployment benefits usually last in the U.S., which added to Wall Street’s holiday cheer. During recessions, Congress and the U.S. government generally agree to extended unemployment benefits but end the extension when economic recovery takes hold. It has been six years since the recession began – 60 percent of a normal industrial cycle – and the Republicans and the bosses agreed that it was high time to end the unemployment extensions.

Some Democrats dependent on workers’ votes have said that they are for a further extension of emergency unemployment benefits. President Obama claims to oppose the end of the extended benefits but signed the budget agreement all the same. The budget agreement as it stands basically says to the unemployed, it is now time to take any job at any wage you can find. If you still can’t find a job, tough luck.

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Change of Guard at the Fed, the Specter of ‘Secular Stagnation,’ and Some Questions of Monetary Theory

December 22, 2013

Ben Bernanke will not seek a third term as chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors – “the Fed.” President Obama has nominated, and the U.S. Senate is expected to formally approve, economist Janet Yellen as his successor. The Federal Reserve Board is a government body that controls the operation of the U.S Federal Reserve System.

“The Fed” lies at the heart of the U.S. central banking system, which under the dollar standard is in effect the central bank of the entire world.

A professional central banker

Janet Yellen is currently vice-chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board. She has also served as an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic advisers. She headed the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010, one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks within the Federal Reserve System. If there is such a thing as a professional central banker, Yellen is it.

Yellen will be the first woman to serve as head of the Federal Reserve Board and will hold the most powerful position within the U.S. government ever held by a woman. Yellen’s appointment therefore reflects gains for women’s equality that have been made since the modern women’s liberation movement began around 1969.

Like other social movements that emerged out of the 1960s radicalization, the modern women’s liberation movement began on the radical left. The very name of the movement was inspired by the name of the main resistance organization fighting U.S. imperialism in Vietnam – the National Liberation Front. However, as a veteran bourgeois economist and a long-time major policymaker in the U.S. government, Yellen would not be expected to have much sympathy for the 20th-century revolutions and movements that made her appointment even a remote possibility.

Significantly, Yellen was appointed only after Lawrence Summers, considered like Yellen a major (bourgeois) economist and said to be the favorite of the Obama administration to succeed Bernanke, announced his withdrawal from contention. Summers became notorious when as president of Harvard University he expressed the opinion that women are not well represented in engineering and the sciences because of mental limitations rooted in biology.

Summers was obliged to resign as president of Harvard, and his anti-woman remarks undoubtedly played a role in his failure to win enough support to be appointed Fed chairman. In addition, Summers attacked the African American Professor Cornell West for his work on Black culture and his alleged “grade inflation,” causing West to leave Harvard. This hardly made Summers popular in the African American community. His nomination would therefore have produced serious strains in the Democratic Coalition, so Summers was obliged to withdraw.

Ben Bernanke like Yellen is considered a distinguished (bourgeois) economist. He had devoted his professional life to exploring the causes of the Great Depression, much like Yellen has. Essentially, Bernanke attempted to prove that the Depression was caused by faulty policies of the Federal Reserve System and the government, and not by contradictions inherent in capitalist production – such as, for example, periodic crises of overproduction. Bernanke denied that overproduction was the cause of the Depression.

Like Milton Friedman, Bernanke blamed the Depression on the failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent a contraction of money and credit. Bernanke put the emphasis on credit, while Friedman put the emphasis on the money supply. Blaming crises on currency and credit, according to Marx, is the most shallow and superficial crisis theory of all.

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Michael Heinrich’s ‘New Reading’ of Marx—A Critique, Pt 3

September 1, 2013

In this month’s post, I will take a look at Heinrich’s views on value, money and price. As regular readers of this blog should realize by now, the theory of value, money and price has big implications for crisis theory.

As we have seen, present-day crisis theory is divided into two main camps. One camp emphasizes the production of surplus value. This school—largely inspired by the work of Polish-born economist Henryk Grossman, and whose most distinguished present-day leader is Professor Andrew Kliman of Pace University—holds that the basic cause of crises is that periodically an insufficient amount of surplus value is produced. The result is a rate of profit too low for the capitalists to maintain a level of investment sufficient to prevent a crisis.

From the viewpoint of this school, a lack of demand is a secondary effect of the crisis but by no means the cause. If the capitalists find a way to increase the production of surplus value sufficiently, investment will rise and demand problems will go away. Heinrich, who claims there is no tendency of the rate of profit to fall, is therefore anathema to this tendency of Marxist thought.

The other main school of crisis theory puts the emphasis on the problem of the realization of surplus value. This tendency is dominated by the Monthly Review school, named after the magazine founded by U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy and now led by Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster.

The Monthly Review school roots the tendency toward crises/stagnation not in the production of surplus value like the Grossman-Kliman school but rather in the realization of surplus value. The analysis of this school is based largely on the work of the purely bourgeois English economist John Maynard Keynes, the moderate Polish-born socialist economist Michael Kalecki, and the radical U.S. Marxist economist Paul Sweezy.

Kalecki’s views on markets were similar to those of Keynes. Indeed, it is often said that Kalecki invented “Keynesian theory” independently and prior to Keynes himself—with one exception. Kalecki, like the rest of the Monthly Review school, puts great emphasis on what he called the “degree of monopoly.” In contrast, Keynes completely ignored the problem of monopoly.

Needed, a Marxist law of markets

A real theory of the market is necessary, in my opinion, for a complete theory of crises. Engels indicated in his work “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” that under capitalism the growth of the market is governed by “quite different laws” than govern the growth of production, and that the laws governing the growth of the market operate “far less energetically” than the laws that govern the growth of production. The result is the crises of overproduction that in the long run keep the growth of production within the limits of the market.

This, however, is not a complete crisis theory, because Engels did not explain exactly what the laws are that govern the growth of the market. Unfortunately, leaving aside hints found in Marx’s writings, Marxists—with the exception of Paul Sweezy—have largely ignored the laws that govern the growth of the market. This, I think, would be a legitimate criticism of what Heinrich calls “world view Marxism.” As a result, the theory of what does govern the growth of the market has been left to the anti-Marxist Keynes, the questionably Marxist Kalecki and the strongly Keynes- and Kalecki-influenced Sweezy.

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John Bellamy Foster’s Latest Attempt To Reconcile Marx and Kalecki

May 12, 2013

In the “Review of the Month,” entitled “Marx, Kalecki, and Socialist Strategy,” in the April 2013 edition of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster once again attempts to show that the views of economist Michal Kalecki (1899-1970) are fully compatible with Marx. Foster even quotes Marx’s “Value, Price and Profit” to show that Marx agreed with Kalecki—and Keynes—that higher wages lead to higher prices.

Foster writes, “Although a general rise in the money-wage level, Marx indicated, would lead to a decrease in the profit share, the economic effect would be minor since capitalists would be enabled to raise prices ‘by the increased demand.’”

Foster’s promotion of the theory that higher money wages cause prices to rise is so out of line with Marx’s whole body of work in general and “Value, Price and Profit” in particular that I could not let it pass without comment.

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Economic Stagnation, Mass Unemployment, Budget Deficits and the Industrial Cycle

February 17, 2013

A few months ago I had dinner with a some friends from the old days. One of them expressed the view that the current economic situation of prolonged economic stagnation, continuing mass unemployment, and falling real wages represented a fundamental change in the workings of the capitalist system. He asked what is behind this change? This a good question and is worth examining in a non-trivial way.

A month or so ago the media, which had been painting a picture of a steadily improving economy, was startled when the U.S. government announced that its first estimate showed that the fourth-quarter GDP declined at an annual rate of .01 percent. Though slight, this would be a decline nonetheless.

Those economists who make a business of guessing the U.S. government’s GDP estimate expected an annualized rate of growth of 1.5 percent for the fourth quarter (of 2012). This would represent a historically low rate of growth, but growth nonetheless.

The media has been working hard to create an impression of a recovery that is at last gaining momentum. Therefore, if we are to believe the capitalist press, a “new era” of lasting prosperity is on the way. This latest “new era” will be fully assured if only the Obama administration and both Democrats and Republicans can settle their differences on the need to bring the current deficit in the finances of the U.S. federal government under control.

This is to be done by some combination of “entitlement cuts” for the working and middle classes and very modest tax increases for the rich. With the tax question settled by the New Year’s Day agreement, the only question now is how deep the entitlement cuts will be, spending on the military and “national security” being largely untouchable.

Thrown somewhat off balance by the estimated fourth-quarter GDP decline, the economists, bourgeois journalists and Wall Street brokerage houses—ever eager to paint the U.S. economy in glowing terms in order to sell stocks to middle-class savers—explained that “special factors” were behind the slight fall in the estimated GDP, not a new recession.

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A Major Attack on Labor Rights in the U.S. as the Federal Reserve Makes Another Inflationary Move

December 23, 2012

December 11 brought news of a major new attack on basic labor rights in the United States. The following day, the Federal Reserve announced new inflationary measures designed to end the economic stagnation the U.S. economy has been mired in since the “Great Recession” bottomed out in July 2009.

The new attack on labor rights occurred when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a so-called “right to work” bill in the state that is the home of the U.S. auto industry. Unlike the attacks in Wisconsin and some other U.S. states that targeted the labor rights of state employees, the Michigan legislation—though it affects state employees, with the police being a significant exception—is clearly aimed at Michigan’s highly unionized automobile industry.

So-called “right to work” laws in the U.S. have absolutely nothing to do with the right of workers to a job. The leaders of U.S. capitalism recognize no such right. Rather, under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, U.S. state governments can pass “right to work” laws that outlaw the union shop. Under a union shop, all workers are required to pay union dues after their probation period as new hires ends.

Traditionally, such laws have existed in the southern states, with their long history of slavery and post-slavery apartheid-type Jim Crow segregation laws. Ultimately, the “right to work” laws of these states, where unions have always been weak, can be seen as part of the heritage of slavery itself. However, the passage of such legislation in Michigan, a northern state that was never a slave state and was at the very center of the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations—CIO—is another matter altogether.

Michigan is the home of the United Automobile Workers, the most powerful industrial union created by the great strike movement of the 1930s. For the first time since the auto bosses were forced to recognize the UAW, the passage of this legislation opens up the real possibility that they are preparing to bust the UAW altogether.

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Greek Election Signals New Stage in Social and Economic Crisis

June 10, 2012

The May 6 Greek election set off political and financial shock waves and seems to have opened a new phase in the prolonged economic crisis-depression that began in July-August 2007 with the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis and has increasingly taken on the form of a social and political crisis as well.

Last February, a deal was worked out in which the Greek governmental debts were written down by about 50 percent. In return, the Greek government was forced to agree to a stiff austerity program aimed at both the employees of the state and workers employed by private capitalists.

Financial circles openly admitted that the austerity polices would further extend and deepen the already five-year-old Greek recession. But they claimed that a really deep recession throughout Europe had been staved off, and the U.S. media reported that the American recovery was now at long last gaining momentum.

The U.S. Labor Department reported a decline in the unemployment rate from around 9 percent last year to just over 8 percent last month. What the capitalist media largely overlooked, however, is that the decline in the unemployment rate was achieved by an alleged decline in the number of people actively looking for work, the exact opposite of what would normally happen during a period of economic recovery.

If it were calculated honestly, the U.S. unemployment rate would show no real decline since the “Great Recession” bottomed out in 2009. The most that could be claimed using U.S. Labor Department data—but not their phony method of calculating the rate of unemployment—is that the U.S. unemployment crisis is not getting any  worse. However, the most recent unemployment figures indicate that once again the growth in total employment has fallen well below the level necessary to prevent a long-term rise in unemployment when the growth in the size of the working population is taken into account. So in reality, the long-term U.S. unemployment crisis is still growing.

In Europe as whole, the situation is even worse. While the crisis first broke out in the U.S. in 2007 and reached a climax on Wall Street in the third quarter of 2008, the crisis more recently has been more severe in Europe. Official unemployment is now 11 percent, the highest since 1995, when figures began to be kept for European-wide unemployment.

But unemployment varies considerably from country to country. In Germany, Europe’s most economically powerful country by far, the official unemployment rate is “only” 6.7 percent—considerably better than the official U.S. unemployment figures—while in Spain it is over 24 percent, almost matching the quasi-official U.S. unemployment rate of 24.9 percent in early 1933 at the very bottom of the Great Depression. In Greece, it is 22 percent and rising. Therefore, as far as Spain and Greece are concerned, a new “Great Depression” is no longer a threat—it is a reality.

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‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’ by Andrew Kliman — Part 3

April 15, 2012

The evolution of the rate of surplus value

Kliman’s discussion of the evolution of the rate of surplus value over the last 40 years is, in my opinion, the weakest part of his book. Most Marxists—and non-Marxists, including the great bulk of U.S. workers—would agree that the portion of income going to the rich—the capitalist class—has risen considerably in the U.S. since the early 1970s. This widespread popular belief is clearly reflected in the rise of the Occupy movement.

Kliman strongly disagrees with this. Using U.S. government statistics, he attempts to demonstrate that the share of the U.S. national income going to the workers has risen at the expense of the share going to the capitalists. Or in Marxist terms, the rate of surplus value has actually fallen. A falling rate of surplus value, even if the organic composition of capital remains unchanged, implies a fall in the rate of profit. If a fall in the rate of surplus value is accompanied by a rise in the organic composition of capital, the result will be a marked fall in the general rate of profit.

Which is right: the general popular perception and the view of the Occupy movement that American capitalism and world capitalism is growing more exploitative, or Kliman’s contrary view?

Kliman quotes John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff—leaders of the Monthly Review school: “…wages of private non-agricultural workers in the United States (in 1982 dollars) peaked in 1972 at $8.99 per hour, and by 2006 had fallen to $8.24 (equivalent to the real hourly wage rate in 1967), despite the enormous growth in productivity and profits over the past few decades.” (p. 155)

These figures would seem to clinch the case for a considerable rise in the rate of surplus value in the decades preceding the “Great Recession.” It would seem that on the eve of the Great Recession in 2006, a typical U.S. worker got less in use value terms for each hour of labor power she sold to the capitalists than her mother earned for similar work 34 years earlier. Furthermore, the productivity of human labor has hardly stood still over the last 34 years. This means that the commodities that a worker consumed in 2006 embodied a considerably smaller amount of human labor value than was the case in 1972.

This is true for two reasons. First, the worker in 2006 received less use value  for every hour of labor power she sold to the capitalists. Second, each unit of use value she did receive in exchange for her sold labor power represented less embodied abstract human labor—value—than it did in 1972.

This would mean that there has been a marked growth in what Marx called relative surplus value when if the total work day remains unchanged workers will be working a smaller amount of time for themselves and a greater amount of time for the capitalists. This can be the case even if the standard of living of the workers actually increases, if the increased number or quantity of commodities  the workers get to consume in exchange for their sold labor power represents a smaller quantity of value.

Kliman disagrees. He thinks that if anything the rate of surplus value, at least in the U.S., has fallen over the last 40 years. In attempting to prove this, he quotes economist Martin Feldstein as an authority. Feldstein wrote that it is a “measurement mistake” to “focus on wages rather than total compensation.” Feldstein complains that this has “led some analysts to conclude that the rise in labor income has not kept up with the growth in productivity.” (p. 153)

Kliman doesn’t inform his readers that Martin Feldstein is an extremely reactionary economist who has dedicated his life to defending and prettifying U.S. capitalism, though he does mention that he was the head of the National Bureau for Economic Research.

Marxists, beginning with Marx, have often quoted bourgeois economists when these economists’ research exposes some of the truths about capitalism and its exploitation of the workers. When the hired apologists for capitalism are obliged to admit a portion of the truth about the exploitative nature of capitalism, it is especially telling. The more reactionary the particular apologetic economist is the better.

But for a Marxist to quote reactionary economists when they use statistical data in a way that actually strengthens their apologetic views of capitalism is rather unusual, to say the least. While we can’t prove that American capitalism has grown more exploitative simply because Feldstein claims it hasn’t, Kliman’s conclusion is strongly in line with Feldstein’s natural ideological bias.

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‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’ by Andrew Kliman — Part 2

March 18, 2012

Measuring the mass and rate of profit

As Andrew Kliman correctly emphasizes, the rate of profit is the most important economic variable under the capitalist mode of production. Capitalist production is production for profit and only for profit.

But exactly how do we define profit, and in what medium is profit measured? As we will see, there is no general agreement among present-day Marxists on exactly what profit is and how it should be measured. And if we lack a precise definition of profit, we will obviously have difficulties in understanding the significance of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the role that this historical tendency plays in real-world capitalist economic crises.

Should we use historical or current prices in calculating the rate and mass of profit?

Kliman strongly supports the use of historical prices rather than current prices to measure the rate of profit. But other Marxists believe that profits are more meaningfully measured in terms of current prices, or what comes to the same thing, replacement costs.

Suppose after an industrial capitalist has purchased the means of production that are necessary for him to carry out the production of his commodity, a sharp fall in prices of the means of production occurs. If we measure profits in terms of historical prices, we may find that our industrial capitalist has not made a profit at all but rather a loss.

However, since the purchasing power of money has risen relative to the means of production used by our capitalist, he will be able to purchase a greater quantity of the means of production than before. Therefore, in real terms he will be able to carry out production on an expanded scale. In that case, hasn’t our capitalist made a profit after all?

Suppose the fall in the level of prices reflects a fall in labor values of the commodities that make up the means of production. In terms of value—abstract human labor embodied in commodities measured in terms of time—he will be in possession of less value than when he started. In value terms, he will have made a loss, but in terms of material use values he will have made a profit.

As we know, capitalists are forced under the pressure of competition among themselves to maximize their accumulation of capital and not means of personal consumption, nor in terms of means of production used to produce means of personal consumption. Instead, each individual capitalist, according to Marx, is forced to maximize the accumulation of capital in terms of value.

Therefore, if an industrial capitalist is losing wealth as measured in value terms, won’t he be losing capital, not accumulating it? And if this continues, won’t he lose all his capital? That is, at a certain point won’t he cease to be a capitalist? Kliman, if I understand him correctly, would strongly agree with this argument.

However, not all economists would agree. For example, the “neo-Ricardians”—or “physicalists” as Kliman likes to call them—claim that labor values have no relationship to prices. The physicalist economists therefore deny that labor value has any importance at all to the capitalist economy. According to these economists, the accumulation of capital cannot therefore be measured in terms of labor values; it must be measured in terms of the accumulation of material use values.

Our physicalists would argue—and the physicalists here include not only “neo-Ricardians” but economists of the neo-classical and Austrian persuasions—that once the effects of deflation—falling prices—have been taken into account, our industrial capitalist has indeed made a profit.

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‘The Failure of Capitalist Production’ by Andrew Kliman — Part 1

February 19, 2012

First, I must say I liked this book. I think it is a major contribution to the debate about the nature not only of the latest crisis but of cyclical capitalist crises in general.

This book is a continuation of Kliman’s earlier book “Reclaiming Marx’s Capital” (Lexington Books, 2006), which deals with the so-called “neo-Ricardian” critique of Marx. But “The Failure of Capitalist Production” (Pluto Press, 2012) is more than that. In this book, Kliman deals with crisis theory, the main subject of this blog. He therefore casts a far wider net than he did in the earlier work.

Though Kliman builds on his earlier book, the main target of his critique shifts from “neo-Ricardians” to the “underconsumptionist” school of crisis theory and its main contemporary representative, the Monthly Review school.

Two main schools of crisis theory

I have explained that there are two main theories of the origins of capitalist crises vying with one another among present-day Marxists, both in print and online. One is the theory of underconsumption. The underconsumptionists see the cause of the periodic economic crises under capitalism as lying in the “excessive” exploitation of the workers. In Marxist terms, underconsumptionism attributes crises and capitalist stagnation to a rate of surplus value that is too high.

That is, too high not only from the viewpoint of the workers but even from the standpoint of the interests of the capitalists themselves. According to the underconsumptionists, the capitalists are appropriating plenty of surplus value, but they cannot find enough buyers for the vast quantity of commodities they are capable of producing with the workers they are “excessively” exploiting.

The result is either acute economic crises at periodic intervals or long-term economic stagnation with many workers and machines lying idle, or some combination of both. The giant of underconsumption theory in the last century was the celebrated American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy. Sweezy founded and edited the socialist magazine Monthly Review, from which the Monthly Review school takes its name.

The underconsumptionist school’s main rival attributes periodic crises to Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This school sees the cause of crises as being the exact opposite of what the Monthly Review school and other underconsumptionists claim it is. The falling rate of profit school holds that it is an insufficient rate of surplus value that leads to acute capitalist economic crises and longer-term stagnation. Too little surplus value is produced, not too little from the viewpoint of the workers, of course, but too little relative to the needs of the capitalist system.

The best-known inspirer of the present-day “too little surplus value” school is the Marxist economist Henryk Grossman (1881-1950), who can be seen as the “anti-Sweezy.” The two men were opponents during their lifetimes, and they remain so after their deaths. Kliman does not mention Grossman in this book. However Kliman definitely belongs to the not-enough-surplus-value school of crisis theory.

As I have explained, these two schools of crisis theory are completely opposed to one another. That is, as stated they both can’t be true. I believe that Kliman very much shares this assessment.

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